6 April 2018

How different control scheme's can impact gameplay.

    With light in my recent gaming experience, a topic brought up in discussion is regarding simple control scheme's, and how they can influence gameplay. In the past, this discussion was about how we can make controls more intuitive, how we can remove the controller from the player's hands entirely. It was seen as a barrier to hinder players, and we had to do what we could to make controlling the character in game, as natural and intuitive as possible, however some recent titles have been breaking that trend. In this article, I wish to discuss the topic quite broadly, how gameplay can be helped and hindered by their controls.

    I will be talking about a wide variety of games, among them: Tekken, Friday the 13th, the Legend of Zelda, and Brother's: A tale of two sons. There is a lot to discuss in these cases, they are all interesting for very different reasons, with them being experiences that are rather fresh in my mind.

    Starting from the beginning, I'm a little late to the party on Tekken 7. Whilst I do have fighting game experience, for the longest time I played Super Smash Bro's, Brawlhalla, arena fighters rather than the more traditional Mortal Kombat's and Tekken's and Street Fighters of the world. I'm no stranger to the series, but I'm as good as one, I haven't played it since I was young, and the control's are vastly different to what I'm accustomed to as a result. The combo's felt unintuitive and alien to me, sidestepping was unnatural and weird, I was still expecting a button to block with, and none of that was present. And as a result it taken a little while for me to really start enjoying the game and get that feeling that what I was doing was of my own volition. This was a bit of both a positive and negative experience for me, negative because it's frustrating not feeling in full control of your actions in a game, but also positive because it was a breath of fresh air, a new experience that I am more than happy to embrace and experience.

    Another game I've been enjoying recently with friends is Friday 13th, the PvP Survival Horror game by Gun Media. This game is especially interesting, because it limits the players control, for a good reason. The setting pits a team of players against one Freddy, one monster. This sounds like it would be a walking nightmare to balance, either the survivors would be too strong and it would be impossible for Freddy to take them in large numbers, or Freddy would be too strong and it would be too easy for him to do his job against an isolated survivor. They have made animations long and commited, they have made you move fairly slowly, they have limited the tool's and information at your disposal, ensuring you have less options, and there is less of a difference between a good player and a great one. Reducing agency in this way has made the game much more balancable and enjoyable. One anecdote I have from my time with the game, was one player who was rather young, he was playing Freddy, and had his mic on by default. When he was chasing down other players, when he had them in his grasp, he was so ecstatic, giggling and laughing through the mic, talking to the players "I'm gonna get you," "you can't escape." genuinely having a the time of his life, having a power trip almost. This wouldn't have been able to happen if the players had more agency, because skill would trump the game mechanics too much. This kid would constantly be on the losing end of the stick, because there's always someone better than you, and he would miss out on this experience. Limiting control and agency allowed this experience to happen, and that's a great thing.

    the Legend of Zelda franchise, has always been celebrated for it's ability to utilise every tool available to them on their console. Games like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword making full use of the Wii's motion control's (whether for better or worse,) or games like Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks finding uses for the second touch screen and microphone, one puzzle actually really stuck with me in Phantom Hourglass, where you had to close the Nintendo DS to transfer a mark from the top screen to the bottom screen. The heavy focus on innovation and new experiences are great for making every Zelda game unique and interesting to play, even despite them following the same formula throughout the series.

    My final case, is on Brother's: a tale of two sons, by Starbreeze Studio's. This is a game that was exceptionally well received for the way they used their control's as a metaphor. I won't go into spoilers here, however the way they laid out their control's was integral to the message they wanted to purvey. It would not hit the players anywhere near as hard as it did if not for their unique control scheme, they wanted the player's to really feel the impact of the ending, and were building up to it from the word go, even utilising the control scheme to make the player feel rapport between the protagonist and his brother.

    Funky control's can certainly be an interesting tool in the game developers arsenal, one that is largely under utilised. I am excited for games in the future that may use such techniques to make some interesting games. I welcome this trend of using control's for artistry and expression. Whilst some games certainly should strive for the older approach of removing the controller from the equation, games like Call of Duty and Forza Motorsport, it is a powerful tool, and not one that should be taken lightly.

2 April 2018

Weight behind mouse clicks, and amazing UI.

    As games got more advanced, as visuals and audio improved, one of the biggest developments was the inclusions of PhysX and programmed sound effects. Footprints, directional audio, cloth physics, hair physics, and the like, all were amazibg additions to games, to make them more immersive, more believable. In this article, I want to discuss the games that have been using this effect on a mouse cursor.

    I will be discussing two games around this topic, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a collectable card game, and Pyre, a sports game/RPG hybrid. Both of these games are extremely well polished, and have positive UX design from head to toe. They are great examples to discuss because of how far beyond the call of duty they went to deliver a user interface.

    Starting with the former, one of the big talking points about Hearthstone when it first released, was the interactive boards they released for people to play on. This is the most standout example, when you load into a game, and the props around the playing field can be interacted with and do a thing. There's a 20 minute video of a guy rating them all from 3 years ago, showcasing them all. but it doesn't just stop there, when you click on the playing field itself, you get a little tap. There is a little dust, as though you just dropped a rock in the sand. You can pick up cards and hold them in your hand, move them around the battlefield. There's a little sparkle animation behind the card, to make it feel like it has movement and energy, the cards are 3D objects with weight and impact behind them, you drop a card on the field and see the dust cloud from their landing. The bigger the thing, the bigger the cloud, some extraordinary legendary cards even have special animations to make them feel more impactful. But it doesn't just stop in game, the menu itself, was completely designed to be an arcane board game box. The collection book, is a literal book that you flick through, like a real life card binder. Every button you hover over has a response, and all of it works together, you give weight you to your mouse. It feels satisfying to play, just playing cards, interacting with the interface, is enjoyable by itself, which to put it simply, goes a long way towards making the game great.

    These games go to such huge lengths to make their game feel immersive and satisfying, but why does it improve the gameplay experience so much? It's a difficult topic to discuss, however it all comes back to psychology. You see it a lot in animation, when you're discussing powerful poses, you need to portray information to the player in ways that aren't just written. Without that immersion, it's difficult for us to get a sense of what's happening on the screen. The entire study of media is relegated to making a scene, as impactful and as meaningful as possible. And these techniques are some of the best ways for games to achieve that. It's an incredibly minor thing, but one that can seperate a good game from a great one.

    Pyre is in much the same boat as Hearthstone, in that everything in the game is pseudo interactable. Whilst not on the same level as Hearthstone, it isn't really the kind of game for that, half of the game is merely dialogue and exploration, I've seen it described similar to The Banner Saga and the like. The parts where the user experience, and these weighted mouse clicks are important, they have been included. With things like interactable environments, examinable items in the wagon, mouse scrollovers for the nouns in the story, reminding you if you forgotten what or who a thing was. These give you a sense of immersion in the world, you mouse stops being just a cursor, and starts being an extension of yourself in this world, helping your explore this new space. Allowing you to really connect with the objects and characters in the world, as though you were really there.

    These techniques are new, and largely untouched as of the present day, however as more and more developers start to fully realise the potential behind them, it is clear that they are can perhaps produce some of the most impressive and immersive experiences we have seen yet. I am very excited for them, I hope what we see in 6 years time from these lessons blow me away, much like the games mentioned above have. Games have never been better, and we can only go up from here.

23 March 2018

The Importance of satisfying control.

   It goes without saying that satisfying controls can make or break some games, however this topic is extremely deep, as a definition of satisfying control could mean many things, and is entirely subjective. In this article, I wish to discuss the definition of satisfying control, and provide analysis on good and bad examples of it, and what we can learn from them.

   When we talk about satisfying controls, we mean to ask three questions. Do the actions have believable forces acting on them, do the actions feel responsive, and are the controls mapped to reasonable buttons on the controller. If you can truthfully answer these questions in a possitive light, it will be a solid step up for your game. Any one of these missing can significantly hurt your game, and sadly when everything is as it should be, people just won't notice it unless you know what you are looking for.

   For the first question, a perfect example to discuss is Ori and the Blind Forest. Every movement feels real, you moving left to right, there are no stuttering animations, no now glitchey movements, however what there is, is gravity keeping the character on the ground, there is momentum in the fast, powerful enemy charging, there is a push behind the protagonists dash, you grip into walls with the wallwalking abilites, you brush past vines and leaves as you pass... subsequently the world feels as complex and alive as the real world. Everything makes sense for you, and THAT is satisfying to play.

   Similarly, examples of this done badly are countless indie games that, whilst a lot of these are still fine games for other reasons, some examples of games lacking that substance would be indie games like Paladins, and older games like Demon's souls. Starting with the former, a lot of the weapons in the game just kinda, exist. You don't feel like you're shooting a gun, it feels like you're playing laser tag. The animations lack movement and energy. Demon's souls, a lot of the weapons lacked weight, theu felt light as a feather. When you attacked with them you didn't feel the weapon behind your swing, it felt like a papier mache prop you were bludgeoning people with. These games are still great in their own right, however it is still important to murder our darlings once in a while.

   For a game to feel responsive, it's all about timings. The less time between an action occuring and the command to initiate it, the more responsive he control. Good examples of responsive games would be games like Hollow Knight, where everything has little to no start or end lag. You're in total control of your character, and if you mess up it's your fault, less than the games. Whilst it is worth mentioning you can absolutely use a longer animation with more lag to add emphasis and meanimg to an action, however those are two seperate things entirely to responsiveness.

   An example of a game that feels unresponsive, would be DotA2, where even majority of heroes suffer from a delay and lag on just turning around and walking in the other direction. This makes the game feel slower and clunkier. Whether thats a good thing or not is subjective, it works for some people, less so for others. 

   The final category, button mapping, is somethong that isn't really a problem anymore. A mixture between devs learning from past mistajes, and cobtrollers being more tailored for their platforms. Things like trigger buttons for guns and car's is intuitive, thibgs like a face button for each type of attack in a fighting game, they just fit. I could likely name any game in the past year and say why its controls are really smart.

   On the contrary however, we have to look at some older games such as the Sly Cooper game series. The first 2 games have an inverted camera you can't change. You make an instinctual move for camera left and get camera right. This takes you out of the moment qith the game, while you gather your bearings on the situation.

   In conclusion, there is a lot behind making a game fhat is satisfying to control. The Ori: and the Blind Forest's and Hearthstones of the world have had some serious thought put behind them, they weren't just crazy coincedences, and it's a field almost every genre from Platforners to RPG's to Bullethells to Rythme games can learn from.